On toeing the party line: three-line whips

(Note: See this post for statistics on how often Canadian MPs vote with their party.)

In an earlier post, I discussed how UK MPs tend to be far more rebellious than their Canadian counterparts, frequently voting against their own party. In that post, I noted that large scale rebellions were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Canada; party discipline is much, much stronger in Canada (and from what I understand, in Australia too).

Tomorrow (24 October 2011) there will be a Backbench Business debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The motion, from Conservative MP David Nuttall reads: “This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation.”

The debate was originally scheduled for Thursday (27 October) but due to the growing support by Conservative backbenchers for the motion, it was moved to Monday to allow the Prime Minister and other front-bench MPs to attend and participate. The Conservative Party leadership is imposing a three-line whip to defeat the motion, which many Conservative MPs are promising to defy.

The concept of a “three-line whip” was new to me. While whipped votes are the norm in Canada, I’d never heard of one described as a “three-line” whip. The reason for that is because it has never really been implemented here, except for one brief experiment.


A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s “enforcers”, who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy. A whip’s role is also to ensure that the elected representatives of their party are in attendance when important votes are taken. The usage comes from the hunting term whipping in, i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack. Hence a whipped vote is one where Members of a given party are told how they will vote, and if they choose to not obey the whip’s instructions, will be punished by the party. Punishment can range from being removed from a Committee they sit on, or having to resign any frontbench position they hold, or even being expelled from caucus and forced to sit as an independent.

In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. These whips are issued to MPs in the form of a letter outlining the Parliamentary schedule, with a sentence such as “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote, underlined one, two or three times according to the severity of the whip:

  • A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting.
  • A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote; partially binding for voting, attendance required unless prior permission given by the whip.
  • A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances and may lead to expulsion from the party. Consequently, three-line whips are generally only issued on key issues, such as votes of confidence and supply. The nature of three-line whips and the potential punishments for revolt vary dramatically among parties and legislatures.

A similar arrangement was experimented with by the Liberal Party of Canada during the Government of Prime Minister Paul Martin as part of its “Action Plan for Democratic Reform“. According to Paul E. J. Thomas, the Action Plan for Democratic Reform included categories of whip:

A three-line whip voting system refers to the extent to which the government sees a bill as a matter of confidence. Under the system, bills with a one-line whip are considered to be “free votes” for all members, meaning that the government takes no position on the issue and the outcome of the vote will not affect the Parliament’s confidence in the government. On two-line votes the cabinet takes a position, but government backbenchers are not obliged to follow it and the outcome again does not affect the government’s survival. Lastly, the three-line whip is saved for key parts of the government’s legislative agenda that are matters of confidence on which the government can fall. As such, all MPs from the governing party are expected to toe the party line.

As you can see, the Liberal Party’s three-line whip system differed somewhat from its UK counterpart. One-line whips introduced by the Liberals were free votes, the Government took no position on the issue, while in the UK, the party’s policy is stated, but Members are free to vote as they wish. Liberal two-line whips applied to cabinet members only – backbench members were still free to vote as they wished, while in the UK it is partially binding for voting. Three-line whips were pretty much the same – Liberal MPs were expected to attend the vote and vote as the party dictated they should, the same as in the UK.

The three-line whip experiment was short-lived and applied only to the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, and the 38th Parliament, and only to the Liberal Party, which formed the Government during that period. The reality in Canada is that almost all votes in the House, for all parties, would be considered three-line whips. From the report It’s My Party: Political Dysfunction Reconsidered:

The  Canadian  parliamentary  system  has a tradition of strict party discipline, meaning that for the majority of votes in the House of Commons, MPs vote with their political party. Party leaders enforce this discipline so they can be as certain as possible about whether legislation will pass a vote. It also helps the public hold parties to account at election time: if all members of a party vote in a particular way, then the party’s positions are ostensibly clearer to the electorate. Voting records indicate that most MPs vote with their party nearly all of the time, so it was a surprise how many MPs emphasized the times they didn’t agree with their party.

Samara Canada found, through exit interviews conducted with MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the May 2011 election that:

 One MP recalled how difficult a particular vote was for him, and other members of his party. “There was a pounding in caucus. We had to vote for this. And I did. I shouldn’t have. But I saw people who were much more committed to [the issue] than I, getting up to vote and crying because they had to vote for it,” he said.

Most MPs described not really understanding how a party’s position on most issues was determined. “Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Even the one item of business in the Canadian House of Commons which is supposed to allow MPs free votes, Private Members’ Bills, is largely whipped:

Private members’ bills are traditionally free votes and are introduced into the House by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. However, even in this ostensibly independent area, the MPs reported heavy party intervention.

One Bloc MP said his party still pressured MPs when facing a free vote. “There are no real free votes. The political parties will say that it’s a free vote to seem democratic, but if the leader has an opinion on it, he’s going to put pressure on the membership so that you think like him,” he said.

A New Democrat MP expressed frustration that the governing parties rarely adhered to free votes once in power. “All these guys who said they were for free votes end up voting against private member’s business because their government does not want it to happen,” he said.

What makes the use of the three-line whip with regards to Monday’s vote on the motion calling for a referendum on the EU particularly interesting is that this is an item of backbench business, and second, the outcome isn’t binding on the Government. Therefore, there is no real need to whip the vote, since the Government is under no obligation to act if the outcome is in favour of a referendum. Of course, if the motion passes by a large margin, and the Government chooses to ignore the outcome, the optics won’t look very good. The party leadership is justifying the three-line whip saying that the motion is “contrary to Government policy.” Still, resorting to a three-line whip does seem rather heavy-handed. And it’s not only Prime Minister David Cameron facing dissent from his MPs; Opposition Leader Ed Milliband has instructed his party to vote against the motion, but many Labour MPs have said they will vote in favour. you can see a complete list of MPs who’ve signed the motion, indicating they will vote in favour of it, here.

The motion will most likely be defeated, since the Coalition Government enjoys a significant working majority in the House, as explained in this post. Still, it promises to be an interesting debate and vote. You can watch the debate live online here. Debate could start at about 3:30 GMT (10:30 EST), but if there are any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements, the start time will be pushed back.

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